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Delaware Captain Acheives Dream

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Delaware Captain Acheives Dream

University of Delaware captain Chris Mattina knows what it's like to play rugby for the Blue Hens, and what it's like to be on the sidelines. Photo courtesy U. Delaware Rugby.

A captain, so the saying goes, doesn’t desert a sinking ship. 

It’s expected, and honorable; but what if the captain not only goes down with the ship, but helps rescue the ship, and gets it sailing again? Is it too much to call all of that heroic?

University of Delaware rugby captain Chris Mattina may not think of himself as a hero, but somehow he did what seemed impossible.

In the fall of 2013, the Delaware rugby program was given what amounted to a death sentence - a five-year suspension because two of its members held a party that, after word got out that a party-themed website would be in attendance to film drunken revelry, exploded into a campus-wide carouse that made national news and embarrassed the school administration.

The connection to the rugby team was thin indeed, but since the negative exposure to the University had been big, the punishment was big, too - Head Coach Bjorn Haglid was gone, and the team was suspended for five years.

Appeals both formal and informal, as well as a detailed plan to revamp how the team was run, fell on deaf ears. Or … maybe they didn’t. Behind the scenes, quietly, the players who stayed and the alumni who were energized worked to show the University that things could be, and would be, better. This week, the suspension was lifted after two years of no rugby. The conditions of the reprieve included a complete and public acceptance of responsibility - something many outside of the University of Delaware didn’t think they needed to do.

But, said Mattina, it was important.

“Showing remorse, taking responsibility, that was a big part of coming back,” said Mattina. “It was just a couple of members of our club, but our club is a family, and everyone has to be held to that standard. We know that if our leaders had done a better job, we could have avoided the situation altogether. It’s a team thing, we have to own it.”

So they took it on the chin. Many of the players who stayed - and plenty did stay - had to take that on. Why did they stay? Mattina’s story jibes with those of other players.

“I was a junior,” he said. “I was pretty much halfway through my studies. I love the school, all my friends are here. I didn’t want to abandon the ship - the captain goes down with the ship, right? I also knew we had a good shot at coming back, so I decided to wait it out.”

Mattina said he doesn’t criticize any players who transferred out, but was glad to see a big part of the 2012-13 team stay … stay long enough to welcome the new players and rebuild the team from square one.

And it does seem like square one. In the fall, the University will welcome a new president, as Dr. Patrick Harker is leaving for another job. A new recreation athletics director is already in place. The Rugby Alumni Association is now an official University association. A new coach will be on board soon, too.

“We have a completely clean slate now,” said Mattina. “We’re ready to build a strong foundation. We have a to of transparency with the administration, and we’re ready to build the right culture.”

Mattina said he doesn’t want to run down the past. Former Head Coach Bjorn Haglid, he said, did a tremendous job in getting Delaware Rugby to challenge the best in the nation. 

“He brought us up,” said Mattina.

But new things will be in place, now. The new players will get a crash course in how to conduct themselves, and will be told in now uncertain terms that any shenanigans - sen unintended shenanigans - will be magnified if you’re on the rugby team. The new coach will meet with the administration - something that wasn’t allowed under previous rules of operation. And that coach may well end up being employed part-time by the school, thus allowing for more direct oversight of the program, and not always leaving it up to the students.

And then there’s the competition. Rugby East Conference Commissioner Clarence Picard said he has been in talks with the Delaware rugby team about coming back to the conference. The 2015 fall schedule is set, and Picard said it could be that the Blue Hens play an independent schedule with lots of Rugby East teams sprinkled in - a chance for the team to show that it’s back for real. Mattina agreed that an independent schedule is likely. He also added that Delaware wants to return to the CRC 7s tournament, where they have performed well in the past. But how do you compete at that level when you missed two recruiting seasons? You hold on, and hope other players held on, too.

“A lot of kids have made their decisions for this fall,” said Mattina. “But we have had guys reach out to me who are interested in playing. And at the same time, our junior class, the class that came in right when we were suspended, is very strong. Those guys were going to be our starters. Now they have the opportunity. They will save us.”

Mattina has stayed on for one more year of eligibility, and will captain the team and serve as the club’s co-president. He wants to make sure that ship is sailing straight before he moves on.

“The college rugby landscape is changing, and so we needed to change the way the players and the coaches worked with the University,” said Mattina. “And we have to be more professional. I think all of the players have learned that you can’t take anything for granted. No matter what you’re doing, you’ve got to act to the highest standard. We’re going to be educating our players on being smart, and being a team all the time. Going through all of this has been hard, and often very frustrating, but now it’s a dream come true.”

The University of Delaware men will be playing rugby again.